There are plenty of good reasons to dislike the European Union. It is, perhaps above all, profoundly undemocratic–at times, as in its treatment of Greece a year ago, stridently anti-democratic. Of course, some of its elements are more democratic than others; it is more a cluster of institutions than a unitary body that speaks in anything like one voice. Moreover, democracy is not always everything: the European Court of Human Rights, for instance, is surely one of its more progressive components, not least because it has acted as a break against demagogic tendencies in individual nation states.
Moreover, whatever the Union’s benefits (or drawbacks) for citizens of its constituent states, you also have to take into account its effect on those outside its borders, or on those who precariously find themselves within its boundaries. For all the conveniences of relatively unrestricted travel and movement within Europe, there are the pernicious effects of “Fortress Europe”: the attempt to restrict movement from outside the area, or to corral refugees in the periphery of the South and the East so as to keep the Northwestern “heartland” as pure as possible.
There is thus undoubtedly a progressive case to be made against Europe, and there always has been. For instance, if one were outside the EU it might be easier, rather than harder, to welcome migration and encourage a diversity that goes beyond the tired old European constraints: not just Spaniards or Poles, say, but Syrians, Somalis, Colombians, and so on. This would be to acknowledge that Britain has never been solely European, but also (for both better and worse, thanks to its imperial past) a meeting point of cultures and populations that are truly global.
But has this been what we have heard from the “Leave” campaign? Far from it. Indeed, quite the opposite. Which is why yesterday’s “Brexit” vote is so discouraging. Rather than leading to a more expansive vision of Britain’s place in the world, underlining the extent to which we are more than simply European, it is a retreat, a withdrawal, a reversion to an old (and manifestly untrue) conception of national self-sufficiency or organic distinctiveness. It is all deeply depressing. Even the disappearance of Cameron and (soon, no doubt) Osborne is hardly a silver lining, given their likely replacements.
But the transition is going to be messy. Perhaps, amid all the confusion (for surely the Leave campaign have no more idea what exactly happens next) there may be space to open up the idea that the (not so) United Kingdom can move beyond Europe, not simply away from it.
Erratum: A friend of mine has repeatedly taken me to task for suggesting that the European Court of Human Rights is part of the EU infrastructure. It isn’t, of course, and I apologize for the error.
On the other hand, the relationship between the ECHR and the EU is complex, and the two are deeply imbricated; they are both closely linked as part of a wider cluster of Europe-wide legal and political institutions and treaties. For more on this tangle, see for instance Francis Fitzgibbin’s “If We Leave” (London Review of Books 38.12 [June 2016]).
In any case, none of this materially affects my points above. Some transnational institutions that broach national sovereignty are reasonably progressive and/or popular, and whether they are or not doesn’t necessarily correlate with the extent to which they are democratic. We need a more nuanced take on them all, which is precisely what neither the Leave nor the Remain campaigns gave us.